In this, the site is little different from the monopolistic legacy news sources whose role in the world it has come to assume; whose readers couldn’t easily improve papers or play a role in their operations, in making them better. This galls because the web had a chance to shake out differently, and it’s disappointing that we reverted so soon to the old, closed model.
In a very real sense, the web was a critique of the way that power and expertise tend to consolidate in the hands of profit-minded organizations. The web, at its best, was a medium without a middleman, one that let people substantively connect with one another without having to go through a profit-minded mediator. And even if ninety-nine percent of them wasted or ignored that power, the remaining one percent were helping to evolve news and communications into a fundamentally new format.
There are still people doing this out on the open web—adding meaning, context, and expertise to any given discussion; building things, innovating, learning from their mistakes. But the state of the web today is such that it is becoming very difficult for any individual or group of individuals to act without relying on big organizations.
In the end, the stronger Facebook grows, the weaker the rest of the web becomes. In a gloomy article for The Guardian published soon after Facebook announced its changes, Adrian Short mourned the demise of the open web: “We need to use social networks to get heard and this forces us into digital serfdom. We give more power to Big Web companies with every tweet and page we post to their networks while hoping to get a bit of traffic and attention back for ourselves. The open web of free and independent websites has never looked so weak.”
News organizations wasted a lot of time wringing their hands about the Internet and wishing it would disappear.
Unsure what could be done with it, and unwilling to consider any implications other than those involving the bottom line, they stood on tenterhooks, faced with the prospect of a communications revolution, and closed their eyes and pretended it wasn’t there.
Now, playing catch-up, they’re being told to embrace all forms of social media with the credulity and verve of a toddler hoping to curry favor with a mall Santa; that they must integrate their operations with Facebook if they are to maximize traffic and effectively engage and build an online community.
There are lots of reasons why extreme Facebook integration is a bad idea. Yes, it ultimately imperils your traffic by making your site too dependent on the social graph’s good graces, and yes, the way Facebook collects data about its users is creepy and invasive, and yes, if you think about it, it makes no sense to forgo building a strong community that’s engaged with your site and cares about and participates in your initiatives in favor of grasping after a weak community that can be induced to spend two seconds “liking” your organization and having its news updates buried among the hundreds of other updates that come across every single day.
But, primarily, Facebook and news organizations have few common values, and news organizations that become too integrated risk losing the very things that made them vital.
Facebook and its peers are the companies on top right now. They may or may not fall and be replaced with other companies. It’s the model they represent that’s the real concern; the model that says, in the end, power ought to consolidate; that accessibility trumps utility; that, like the phoenix, precision will magically rise out of indiscriminate flames.
The open web could use a champion, and news organizations should be the ones to brandish that sword. Online news sites should become beacons for experimentation, conveners of authority; they should become spaces that foster the kind of perspective and expertise that Facebook circumscribes, and the collaboration that Facebook disallows. Theoretically, this would fortify both parties, and would help news organizations remake themselves into powerful alternative platforms for community-driven news.
Practically, what might this mean?